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Yoda or Professor Umbridge? An ode to supervisors at NTNU

As a Ph.D. candidate, I have found that all my colleagues have struggled to communicate with their supervisor at one time or another. With their help, I have made a classification of six types of supervisors.
Some candidates need to work with a few frogs to find their prince, or in this case, their perfect supervisor. 
        
            (Foto: KRISTOFFER FURBERG)

Some candidates need to work with a few frogs to find their prince, or in this case, their perfect supervisor.  Foto: KRISTOFFER FURBERG

This comment is dedicated to all the people at NTNU with a supervisor. And to the supervisors. To reach as many possible with this comment, I am writing it in English.

Without transference of knowledge, humanity would keep making the same mistakes over and over. Teachers make the world evolve. The same goes for supervisors at NTNU, although in a slightly different manner. Our supervisors are wiser with respect to our work and education. They know how to move in the jungle that is your field of research, and our job is to learn from their wisdom and become independent after our studies.

Since many do not read the entirety of these comments, I will start with some important formal points:

  1. It is fully possible for any candidate to change supervisor if the relationship is not working.
  2. Your supervisor is not your boss if you are a Ph.D. candidate or post doctor. Your boss is the head of your department.
  3. The supervisor-candidate relationship needs work from both sides to function, and it will not work without mutual respect.
  4. The challenges of a good supervisor-candidate relationship are severely under-communicated

Now to the slightly less formal, but not less serious, part of the comment.

A teacher can be brilliant while being small and green with large ears and backwards sentence structures (Yoda, a Star Wars reference), or clad in pink with a characteristic cough and a distinct streak of sadism (Professor Umbridge, a Harry Potter reference). And it is almost impossible to tell which one your new supervisor relates to before you start learning from them.

As a Ph.D. candidate, I have found that all my colleagues have struggled to communicate with their supervisor at one time or another. With their help, I have made a classification of six types of supervisors, all entirely fictional and exaggerated but based on true stories. Some supervisors are easily classified in one category, while others are a mix of all six.

The “Too-busy”: This supervisor is always busy, and probably has more jobs or board positions in addition to the position at NTNU. Your emails and manuscripts are only read while on travel, as there is no wifi or new emails on airplanes. Meetings must be planned two weeks in advance and are often delayed or canceled on a few hours’ notice.

The “Too-many-candidates”: This supervisor has 20 Ph.D. candidates to supervise, as well as several master students. All supervision meetings are conducted as group meetings, and you have more contact with your fellow candidates than the actual supervisor. The supervisor may not read emails due to the massive amount of unread emails in his or her inbox.

The “Too-few-candidates”: This supervisor has one candidate, mostly because it is required by NTNU. They are very busy with their own research, which does not necessarily match the research they are supervising. They might dislike new ideas that goes against their plan, and often work from home. They might also avoid emails. This supervisor could also have the potential to become uncomfortably friendly. Inappropriate relationships between supervisors and candidates rarely makes life better for anyone involved.

The “Sabbatical”: This supervisor goes on sabbatical without giving notice, often in a very intense period of your work. And a sabbatical is not a sabbatical if it is in a remotely close time-zone, which means a year of skype meetings at inappropriate times of the day. Luckily, this supervisor often answers emails within 24 hours. After all, in 24 hours there is always a new day somewhere in the world.

The “Detail-oriented”: This supervisor is extremely interested in your work. In fact, so interested that they would like to do it themselves if they could but needed to delegate it to education to get the grant proposal. They have very specific plans, and there is little room for coming up with a new angle or placing a comma in a different place. There are weekly supervision meetings, and a clear expectation of new results every week. They might also keep their best ideas to themselves, making the candidate dependent on them to continue their research.

The “Perfect-one”: This is the rarest and most elusive type of supervisor. The supervisor that fits your communication style perfectly and has exactly the right amount of time and attention for you. You get space when you need space, and you always have a partner to discuss your work with. You are on friendly terms with them – but not too friendly. Your communication style is discussed openly and agreed upon by both, and you have mutual respect for each other.

All these supervisor-candidate relationships have one thing in common: They are all unique. Some work well, some do not. A functioning relationship with a supervisor should be based on mutual respect and communication. However, we do not always know how to communicate with each other and it takes work to find the appropriate style of communication.

If the relationship with your supervisor or candidate is not working, you can get help trying to fix it, either from the department, faculty, or trade union representatives. Switching supervisors for a candidate can be difficult, but sometimes necessary. The same goes for reassigning your candidate to another supervisor. And it does not necessarily mean that one of you have done something wrong. Sometimes the personal chemistry is just not right. It is important to act before your work suffers too much, both for candidates and supervisors. Always remember that you are not alone, and help is available for all who need it.

Some candidates need to work with a few frogs to find their prince, or in this case, their perfect supervisor.

Luckily, one person’s Umbridge might be another person’s Yoda.

For the record, I am very happy with my own supervisor.

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Read more letters to the editor here.

Sigrid Rønneberg
Ph. D. candidate Sigrid Rønneberg is one of UA’s six guest writers. 
        
            (Foto: KRISTOFFER FURBERG)

Ph. D. candidate Sigrid Rønneberg is one of UA’s six guest writers.  Foto: KRISTOFFER FURBERG

  • Education: Master’s degree in technical physics engineering.
  • Current position: Ph. D. candidate at NTNU Nanomechanical Lab.
  • Former positions in academia: Member of the board, NTNU and Tekna NTNU.
  • Academic interests: Why ice adheres to a surface, and how different types of ice behaves. And does ice behave like water on a surface?
  • Concerned about: Temporary positions and how to best communicate research.
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